Casey Barber’s activities leave one wondering if she borrowed Hermione’s time-turner device from the fictional world of Harry Potter. She seems to be everywhere at once — doing research, taking classes, volunteering in the community, and even shooting hoops with the Honors College intramural basketball team she helped start.
Barber, a junior in the Honors College majoring in public health, is the undergraduate recipient of the 2016 Regents’ Scholar Award at UNLV. This award is the Nevada System of Higher Education’s top honor for one undergraduate and one graduate student at each institution, awarded based on academic achievement, leadership ability, and service contributions.
Path to UNLV and Public Health
Barber came to UNLV as a National Merit Finalist, which meant she could have attended virtually any university in the country. “But UNLV became No. 1 once I considered two things: the Honors College and research opportunities for undergraduates,” the native Las Vegan said.
She realized that UNLV’s many research opportunities for students, even at the undergraduate level, would help her build a resume long before she sought her first professional position. Her experiences also ended up changing her career path.
She started as a biology major with the goal of going into medicine, but then met Shawn Gerstenberger, now dean of the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences. Barber spent her first summer at UNLV as a research assistant on Gerstenberger’s research team, participating in a meticulous investigation of lead hazards in homes in nearby Henderson.
Working alongside Gerstenberger opened her eyes to the field of public health. “For me, public health is a perfect fit,” Barber said. “It integrates my interest in human biology with my desire to serve the community.”
The hands-on research helped her realize that public health offered her the chance to directly help real people in real circumstances improve their lives. Eventually, she became a certified lead-sampling technician to help people remove the hazardous substance from their homes.
After studying abroad in Ireland last spring, Barber took a research assistantship to study programs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The work will serve as the focus of her Honors thesis, a project undertaken by select students who complete the research and creative honors program in the Honors College.
Worldwide health problems associated with infectious diseases like HIV have been on Barber’s mind since high school. “I remember being captivated when I first learned about the history of the polio vaccine,” said Barber. “It was inspiring to learn how a major health crisis could be addressed with a preventive, research-based solution.”
Prevention is a philosophy Barber takes off campus through her work with Rebuilding Together Southern Nevada, a nonprofit that makes home repairs and accessibility modifications for homeowners and families in need. By simply changing a light bulb, replacing batteries in a smoke detector, or removing debris from a front yard, Barber and the group of volunteers she leads help prevent home accidents, potentially saving lives and certainly improving the quality of them.
Later this month, Barber will lead a crew of Honors students to the home of a 78-year-old woman in Henderson for National Rebuilding Day. Barber already has connected with the homeowner over the phone and in person. Learning that Barber’s group would be helping clean up her garden, among other home improvements, nearly brought the homeowner to tears.
“The health of a person’s home is so fundamental,” said Barber, who maintains a 3.98 GPA. “What a privilege it’s been to meet this woman and help her find joy again in her garden and to feel more comfortable in and proud of her home.”
Barber spearheaded the initiative to engage UNLV students in the Rebuilding Together Southern Nevada programs, noted Marta Meana, dean of the Honors College. “To do this, she integrated community need with UNLV programs, coordinated volunteer agreements and legal issues, and found a way to use groups of UNLV students to perform tasks in elderly individuals’ homes that otherwise might never be fixed.”
‘The Whole Package’
Even with her academic and volunteer commitments, Barber remains active in campus life. As a member of the Honors Student Council, she helps coordinate other philanthropic opportunities and even started the first Honors College intramural basketball team. She also serves as a member in the UNLV Public Health Student Association and was recently inducted into the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.
Following graduation in May 2017, Barber plans to pursue a master’s in public health and, eventually, earn a Ph.D. with the intent of improving disease prevention and control.
On top of all this, Meana said, Barber always has been an “absolute delight interpersonally — kind, gentle, professional, respectful, and one of the most well-rounded students I have ever met.”
“She is what we colloquially call ‘the whole package,’” said Meana.
Gerstenberger added, “My only problem with Casey is that everyone I introduce her to tries to hire her away.”